New research claims that drinking too much water killed Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee statues

Bruce Lee statues
Photo: MN Chan (Getty Images)

50 years after the death of Bruce Lee, and a team of researchers is taking a second look at the cause. Although Lee’s official cause of death is the result of cerebral edema or brain swelling, what this new research supposes is that maybe he didn’t. A research paper from the Clinical Kidney Journal proposes that “the kidney’s inability to excrete excess water killed Bruce Lee.

Lee had multiple risk factors for hyponatraemia that may have included high chronic fluid intake, factors that acutely increase thirst (marijuana) and factors that decrease the ability of the kidneys to excrete water by either promoting secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) or interfering with water excretion mechanisms in kidney tubules: prescription drugs (diuretics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioids, antiepileptic drugs), alcohol, chronic low solute intake, a past history of acute kidney injury and exercise.

The theory is no worse than many others surrounding Lee’s mysterious death, including an ancient family damnassassination by the Japanese mafia, and poisoning. Others blame the aspirin he took to relieve a headache shortly before his death. Butt, per Varietythe 2018 book Bruce Lee, A Life blamed heat exhaustion due to the excessive heat in Hong Kong that day. Variety continues:

The study hypothesized that although he had not consumed a huge amount of water, his kidneys were potentially unable to handle even normal amounts of fluid. In addition, he had reportedly been existing on a near-liquid diet of mostly juices.

Ultimately, the paper lays the blame on the kidney dysfunction that can lead to “hyponatremiacerebral edemaand death within hours if excess water intake is not matched by water excretion in urine, which is in line with the timeline of Lee’s demise.”

Given that hyponatraemia is frequent, as is found in up to 40% of hospitalized persons and may cause death due to excessive water ingestion even in young healthy persons, there is a need for a wider dissemination of the concept that excessive water intake can kill. The fact that we are 60% water does not protect us from the potentially lethal consequences of drinking water at a faster rate than our kidneys can excrete excess water.

The irony of drinking water taking out cinema’s greatest fighter was not lost on the researchers who noted, “Ironically, Lee made famous the quote ‘Be water my friend,’ but excess water appears to have ultimately killed him.” There’s no need to pour salt on the wound.

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